Property-rights battle heating up in Virginia legislature

Property-rights battle heating up in Virginia legislature

Martha Boneta, a Virginia farmer, is hailing a bill that would give property owners a legal club to pummel overreaching government officials.

Boneta knows the stakes. In a widely reported showdown that sparked pitchfork protests in the community, county officials cited Boneta for selling homemade products on her farm. The county threatened her with $5,000-per-day fines for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls, and for advertising pumpkin carvings.

Calling her ongoing legal battle with government officials a “prime example why we need legislation,” Boneta praised HB 1219, introduced by state Republican Delegate Bob Marshall.

“This could be the difference between keeping small family farmers on the farm or being forced off the land,” Boneta told Watchdog.org Tuesday.

HB 1219 provides remedies, including damages and attorney fees, when localities “abuse zoning laws and violate constitutional rights,” Marshall said. The bill also grants whistleblower protections for county employees who report abuses, and allows the state attorney general’s office to intervene on behalf of citizens in litigation against counties or municipalities.

Boneta, along with scores of fellow small farmers, descended on Richmond Monday to push for other measures, as well. They had mixed success.

The House Agriculture subcommittee buried Delegate Rob Bell’s HB 135, a “Virginia Farm Freedom” bill that would have freed farmers to market their goods on-site, without restrictions.

Sellers would only be required to label their products with the warning: “Not for Resale – Processed and Prepared Without State Inspection.”

Supporters denounced the current “morass of regulations” burdening small producers.

Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms, tried to blunt criticism of Bell’s bill by saying, “Innovation requires choice, and risk. We can’t be scared.” But opponents, ranging from the Farm Bureau to the Medical Society of Virginia, lined up against the Republican’s measure, and it was unanimously set aside.

Small-farm activists, who came from all corners of the commonwealth to pack the overflowing hearing room, fared better with HB 268.

Delegate Bobby Orrock’s measure promotes “agritourism” by broadening the allowable on-site sales of farm products, essentially granting farmers the same “event” rights and privileges enjoyed by Virginia wineries.

But unlike Bell’s bill, HB 268 bars activities that create “a substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public,” empowering government officials to enforce controls on private property.

With that qualifier, Orrock, a Republican, said his bill was backed by “the full width and breadth of the agriculture industry.” The panel moved it on to the House Agriculture Committee.

An identical Senate version, SB 51, has endorsements from a handful of Democrats.

“This is huge. It’s not a party issue — it’s a Virginia issue,” Boneta said.

Still, some “farm freedom” activists worry they’re getting only half a loaf. They predict that counties could hem them in with restrictive local zoning ordinances and suppressive comprehensive plans.

Marshall said his HB 1219 “levels the playing field” for property owners by reversing a 1981 Virginia Supreme Court decision that gave county ordinances a presumption of constitutional validity.

The bill expressly authorizes courts to nullify local zoning ordinances that violate constitutional rights.

Marshall said precedent for his measure includes federal law (42 USC 1983 and 1988) that allows citizens to sue states and recover attorney fees for violating constitutional rights under color of state law.

Boneta said her feud with Fauquier County is “a prime example why this legislation is so vital,” adding:

There’s no question [Marshall’s] bill will help. We won’t have to live in fear.

It’s heartbreaking. I could be tending my crops or aviary instead of fighting court battles. Small farmers are under unbearable pressure.

The Virginia Association of Counties declined to comment on Marshall’s bill, saying the measure, introduced Friday, had not been reviewed by members.

Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.


Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”

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